Stella Young's legacy: Disability is not made by bad bodies. It is made by bad societies

By most accounts, EG Whitlam quietly practised the lack of belief in cosmic order that Stella Young, an out-and-proud atheist, was ardent to declare. On his eightieth birthday, an occasion Young, who died Saturday evening, recently imagined, he told guests “As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life.”

The strength of Whitlam’s ethical approach, which happened to be post-Christian, made him a leader now so easily remembered as great. He strategized far beyond himself and into a national afterlife. This “spirituality”, such as it was, made him so much more than most: he was a servant of the century and not, like most of us, a handmaid to the self.

Stella Young, whom I knew both privately and politically, freed herself long ago from this everyday enslavement. She saw and spoke beyond her own experience and made the understanding of systemic rule and change her business. She was a teenager when she began to know what she later reminded us of as no other national voice has: disability is not made by bad bodies. It is made by bad societies.

I worked with Young in the production of disability media for a few months and it would be lax of me not to mention that we, both stubborn and irascible writers, had terrible arguments about the right way to fix journalism’s wrongs. Everyone who knew this luminous bruiser today regrets her passing in their own way but my personal regret comes from those days where I stuck to my guns with an egoistic force that prevented me from building on the language of disability she had begun to develop. Young’s thoughts, always written with care and profound concern for how well they would be understood, derived from the “social model” of disability. They can be read and will be by many in the coming days and years. But to look at their origin is important.

Stella introduced me to the 1975 statement made by UK organisation the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS)

“In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

Frankly, I was annoyed that these thoughts hadn’t occurred to me before.

But they’d occurred to Stella, a social constructivist and Etsy-loving fashionplate, and she offered them without pause or apology but with the kind of poise that only rigorous thinking produces. She would not be seen or treated as surplus to the needs of a society with delusions of its own efficiency and she extended this battle on the behalf of anyone who had been forced, never born, into the idea of uselessness.

Disability may have been her most visible concern but Young was, always, explicitly and implicitly, engaged with the all the “freaks”. She read, spoke and acted on queer theory, feminism, Aboriginal self-determination and trawled with a commitment most of us will never muster through details of the economic viability of the NDIS. Her engagement with the important idea that “disability”, in all its social forms, was not a natural idea was total. It would unfold over coffee in a discussion about the ethics of publicly calling out prejudice and it would happen on her iPad as she pored, alone, over the minutiae of difficult legislation whose authors, I suspect, were never devoted to its realisation as she was.

And now, this voice who uttered with care and depth and such effective patience what we urgently needed to hear, is gone. As her friend and collaborator Shakira Hussein said to me in recent hours, “This feels like such an injustice”.  Of course, Hussein and Young both know that Stella’s death in itself cannot be considered an injustice of the sort each woman has devoted their professional and personal lives to fighting; it’s just a sad and terrible thing. But what is unjust, save for all the injustices that Stella spent her short life describing, is that we do not produce more confident and clear voices like this one.

Like it or not, and Stella the servant-of-history would not, it still takes an exceptional person to describe with such popular precision the way we make people and bodies excess to our social needs. Her goal was to make this heightened understanding of commonplace injustice itself commonplace. But, she was not commonplace.

And the truest way to honour her memory is not to elevate her; exceptional as she was. But to continue the thinking she popularised and transform it into action.

Whitlam had a lot more time than Young but neither of them felt they had any time to waste in developing a conventionally spiritual framework. So, if there’s any transubstantiation to occur here, let it be of her memory into policy and understanding.

16 responses to “Stella Young's legacy: Disability is not made by bad bodies. It is made by bad societies

  1. I used to sometimes watch Stella Young on the community television show she facilitated for years. She stood out even then. She later became a powerful media presence for disabled people.

    She was a witty and remarkable woman, and this is a lovely tribute written by one of her friends. Thanks

  2. As an 81 yr old woman who constantly pulls people up on their grammar, today I say ‘to Hell with commas or not-commas!’ Today I weep for the world’s loss of this much-needed vibrant, brilliant, caring and funny beautiful woman. Her knowledge and dedication needed to continue for many a long year yet! Somehow we need to fill that huge space that’s been left in the world. There is so much caring and understanding work to be done!

  3. Vale Stella Young

    “Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
    Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
    One crowded hour of glorious life
    Is worth an age without a name.” [Thomas Mordaunt]

    ‘tho’ pedantic I may be, the legacy of Stella Young overshadows the pedantry of grammar and the concatenation of concepts in the never-ending sentence.
    Attention to such matters leaves me ‘comma-tose’.

  4. Lovely article Helen. What a woman! For some reason I always think of Stella when my daughter speaks of #likeagirl – ever unapologetic and totally invincible. So sorry we won’t ever read 80 year old Stella’s response to her 30 year old self.

  5. Hmmm, it is not the commas but the mixing of subjects (Whitlam and Young) that could be improved. As written it appears that Stella Young imagined Whitlam’s eightieth birthday rather than her own.

    The sentence could be split:
    On his eightieth birthday, Whitlam told guests “As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life.” Young, who died Saturday evening, recently imagined her own …

    I am not a writer or stylist so I am sure there are better answers than this.

    I didn’t know Young, except through the pages of The Drum but I always read her contributions confident that I would be challenged to think again about concepts I had never questioned.

    1. “I always read her contributions confident that I would be challenged to think again about concepts I had never questioned.”
      That’s quite an epitaph in itself.

      1. What a feisty, intelligent, horny woman this lady was…

        Her wit was irrepressible, her arguments forceful and reasoned, her anger always justifiable.

        The world and Australia are lessened by her death, unfortunately, death doesn’t play favourites!

  6. Well, there was an extra comma in my article on Stella Young yesterday, but in my defence I was rushing for the deadline so I think it comes under the heading of “typo”.
    “Having said that, Stella and Ramp Up created a sense of community, I should add that it wasn’t (and isn’t) a united and tranquil community.”
    That first comma shouldn’t be there and slightly changes the meaning of the sentence.

  7. Helen, when it comes to writing about our much-treasured friend Stella, you use as many commas as you damn well please!

  8. “On his eightieth birthday, an occasion Young, who died Saturday evening, recently imagined, he told guests…” SO MANY COMMAS.

    Otherwise a sensitively written tribute.

    1. Really? A woman dies unexpectedly at the age of 32, a friend and colleague writes of her legacy, and you choose to comment on grammar? #rollingmyeyes

      1. Well. There’s never an excuse for poor writing and most especially not when someone significant passes. If you can’t write well then, you need a new job.
        But. Ella is being a bit of a needler here because if she cares enough about punctuation to critique it, she should probably also recognize there is nothing actually wrong with the sentence.
        I’d actually say the comma use here is perfectly legitimate and even good. The sentence tries to conflate a number of ideas about a person who ignited many ideas and does so thanks to decent punctuation.
        Maybe Ella was trying to be funny by getting all Strunk and White.
        Honestly, Stella would have approved of such pedantry. If only Ella had told us how the sentence was wrong and offered a subbed version.

        1. I agree Helen, as an English teacher I found nothing wrong with the punctuation. It was a sad day when I heard of Stella’s death, so young, so sad. She gave and offered so much.
          In my opinion, the tribute was well written. Perhaps a few more commas and even a semi colon or three, could have made the nit pickers a little more aware of what the passage was all about.


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